On the back of Mary Portas’s rallying cry for multiples and indies to unite to save local high streets, one Dorset town bucking the trend for decline can offer a few tips
As the recession takes hold it is having a devastating effect on many local high streets and the retail economies of some towns. Retail casualties, including the high-profile collapse of Woolworths, mean gaps are appearing in previously healthy shopping streets. Boarded-up shops are becoming a regular sight. The closure of a couple of big-draw retailers in a town is all it takes to have a
devastating knock-on effect on independent retailers, and send a town spiralling into a seemingly irreversible decline.
Retail research company Experian estimates that 35,000 shops will close by the end of the year, and retail guru Mary Portas highlighted the problem facing high streets up and down the country in BBC2’s recent Save our Shops television programme which focused on the plight of local high streets in places such as Gateshead in Tyne & Wear, Dunstable in Bedfordshire and Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.
However, not all high streets are suffering, with some market town retailers bucking the downturn. The British Shops and Stores Association (BSSA) points to Bridport in Dorset as one example of where indies and multiples are getting the balance right.
Bridport has a population of about 12,000. It is a relatively affluent Dorset town and remains a popular tourist destination thanks to the picturesque quality of its many listed buildings and the good reputation of its local food and markets.Bridport’s main shopping area is focused around West Street, East Street and South Street. One of the key factors which enables retail in the town to weather the storm is its suitable mix of big multiples and local traders within close proximity.
The large high street names are essential to draw shopper footfall and attract other businesses. A Waitrose supermarket recently opened in town and Bridport has the likes of New Look and value chain Peacocks close to its indies.
Side by side
However, smaller businesses are also managing to co-exist and find their niche in the market. One independent seeing sales increases in the downturn is Steptoes. The retailer, which sits next door to New Look, sells clothing, footwear and accessories from the likes of surfwear brand Animal, footwear brand El Naturalista and sunglasses brand Oakley. After 15 years in the town, Steptoes has seen a 15% increase in sales since January year on year.
Managing director Riff Tilbury says both flexibility and the willingness to adapt to new entrants into the market has been key to the business’s success. “We don’t try to compete with New Look or Peacocks, but we dropped some brands after the retail prices got too high and went for brands with better prices and margins,” he says. “We’ve also moved more into branded footwear because there seems to be less competition now.
“Businesses that are trading just on the strength of the brand are not doing enough. If you just sit around and buy brands and think it will sell just because of the brand, you won’t survive. Now you have to really know what you are doing and look for well-designed, well-priced garments.”
Tilbury is also aware that having the right balance of multiples and independents in a town is vital. There is a second Steptoes in the nearby town of Dorchester, where business is not as good. “The difference is that Dorchester is full of multiples, so there’s more competition and they drive up the rents for everyone else,” says Tilbury.
Back in Bridport, classic menswear store Smith & Smith is also faring well. It sells brands including Gurteen, Barbour, Farah and Peter Scott, as well as some womenswear labels such as Slimma.
Sue England, co-owner of the 125-year-old family business, believes customer service is one of the key points of difference. “Trade is not bad,” she says. “We go out of our way to help customers and that’s one of the things that makes a difference. We got a pair of trousers in from Germany for one customer who wanted a specific style, after another retailer had told him they couldn’t help. Staffing is important. You’ve got to have staff that know what they are talking about.”
Good luck and hard work
England has also recently launched a transactional website for Smith & Smith, which now attracts customers from as far afield as Russia and Norway. “It amazed us the kind of people that would be looking at our website and our business,” she says.
“The multiples are quite modern while our customers are quite traditional and we make sure for cater for that. Waitrose has opened recently and that’s a good sign that there must be money to be made in the town. It’s also good that there isn’t a big shopping centre, as those can take the heart out of a town,” England adds.
However, key to Bridport’s relative good health is the efforts made by its town council to maintain Bridport’s general environment and in encouraging events in its local town square, plus its twice-weekly street markets - all of which help attract footfall for the town’s retailers. However, Bridport Chamber of Trade and Commerce president Mike Harvey says that although the town council is very supportive with food and beer festivals, there is also an element of good fortune to retailers’ successes.
“We are lucky that we have some relatively affluent shoppers,” he says. “The town has a reputation for its food and that brings people in. And the nearest big town - Weymouth - is 20 miles away,” he says.
Harvey adds: “There aren’t too many multiples, but that’s probably because a lot of the retail space is quite small and not that suitable. Woolworths closed, but you need this shake-up
every now and then because the rents get too high. But now when leases are coming to an end tenants are being more aggressive with new terms, and that’s important.”
The BSSA’s market town health check
- Thriving towns must not sit on their laurels but constantly ask themselves if they are maximising their “sense of place” and capitalising on their historic reputation.
- Towns must work in partnership, not just among themselves but with local and district councils and landlords. All town ‘shareholders’ must come together to develop a strategic plan for the town, for they all have an overriding interest in ensuring the town’s continuing trading success and vibrancy.
- The public realm must meet consumer aspirations. There must be easy access, affordable parking, clean streets and public conveniences. A town centre should be able to regularly hold activities which will draw shoppers - farmers’ markets, stall holders, musicians and festivals, and these areas must have cafes and sitting-out areas. They become the heartbeat of the town.
- The retail mix in the town must be such that consumers feel they can buy anything they want and there is choice. Vibrant towns will attract new national brands.
- Partnerships need to understand where they can gain support and funding. How many have utilised the Business Improvement District’s system to regenerate areas of their town or sought EU grants? The key must be to plan for continuing success and not let towns decline. It requires an imaginative and strong council, landlords who buy into the plan and shopkeepers who are prepared to pull together to make it work. True team effort demands regular communication and actions.
128 Number of shops in Bridport
19,200 Population living in town’s shopping catchment area
28% Proportion of residents aged 18-44
Source: West Dorset council